Why CNN Fails

by Randy Shaw on April 6, 2010

Last week, the New York Times reported that CNN “continued what has become a precipitous decline in ratings for its prime-time programs in the first quarter of 2010, with its main hosts losing almost half their viewers in a year.” CNN executives insisted “they will not change their approach to prime-time programs, which are led by hosts not aligned with any partisan point of view.”

But CNN’s chief problem is not a lack of partisanship. Instead, it is that CNN’s “news” primarily consists of opinions from partisan political hacks. Most work for CNN because no candidate wants to hire them, and it’s an easy gig because they don’t have to know much about the subjects they pontificate about. Does CNN really believe viewers are still interested in the opinions of the corporate-funded James Carville? Or that CNN will steal viewers from FOX News by hiring Erick Erickson of Redstate.com, who publicly threatened to shoot census workers? CNN is failing because it’s selling stale conventional wisdom, which viewers are rejecting.

CNN’s strategy of delivering news via the opinions of self-defined political “consultants” continues to turn off viewers. But CNN wrongly believes that the network is insufficiently partisan, which contributes to its refusal to change course.

It’s the Pundits, Stupid

CNN’s fundamental problem is this: the diverse opinions of political consultants does not constitute “news.” Instead, it constitutes “spin,” which immediately leads many viewers to change the channel.

That’s why Bill O’Reilly of FOX News describes his show as a “no spin” zone. Regardless of the term’s inaccuracy in this case, FOX understands that people enjoy opinions but hate “spin.”

But CNN thinks the public wants to hear from self-identified Republican and Democratic Party political consultants. The idea is that on CNN, viewers get “both sides” – when in fact the public does not trust anyone promoting themselves as a “political consultant,” often a polite term for party hack.

I’m pretty informed about politics, yet CNN regularly brings on alleged political experts whose names are entirely unfamiliar. One has no idea what campaigns – if any – they have successfully managed, and why their opinions should be valued.

When CNN does bring on a known pundit that has run a winning campaign, like James Carville, it seems to have forgotten that he has not been politically relevant for over a decade. Carville earns a living from corporate speaking fees, books, teaching, and consulting with candidates who seek to use American-style political methods abroad.

Try to think of the last time James Carville was the lead strategist on a successful political campaign in the United States. And while the face offs with his ideologically opposite wife, Mary Matalin, were interesting in the 1990’s, that shtick has long exceeded its freshness date.

Latinos Need Not Apply

If CNN wanted to recover the many Latino viewers who ditched the network over its continued promotion of the anti-Latino Lou Dobbs, it could have added to its broadcasts a scholar and/or activist who knows Latino politics. But the last Latino commentator I saw on CNN was a Cuban-American Republican consultant, which hardly reflects a Latino constituency that voted 78% for Democrats in 2008.

Rather than offer viewers the thoughts of someone immersed in the politics of a constituency whose votes swing elections in multiple states, the newest entrant in the CNN punditocracy is Erick Erickson. Erickson provides no viewpoint that cannot be found 24/7 on FOX News, or on the Limbaugh, Levin or Hannity radio shows.

Is CNN really so foolish to believe that Erickson will bring viewers from FOX? And considering that CNN likely hired Erickson because of his extreme views – he threatened to confront census workers at his door with “my wife’s shotgun” – it is easy to see why more moderate viewers are fleeing CNN in droves.

CNN is Not Trusted

In an August 2008 Pew Research poll, respondents found CNN to be the “most believable” news organization. CNN has long advertised itself as the “most trusted” news source, so why has its main hosts lost nearly half their audience from 2009 to 2010?

Part of the answer is that while CNN was deemed the most credible, only 30% of respondents found it so. In other words, the vast majority did not find CNN or any its competitors credible news sources, which means that “believability” is not where CNN should have hitched its marketing.

But I think another part of the answer is that the chief CNN news anchors – Campbell Brown, Anderson Cooper, and Wolf Blitzer – are either not trusted, or do not inspire viewer loyalty.

Campbell Brown’s husband, Dan Senor, is a partner in a private equities investment firm, a frequent contributor to FOX News and the Wall Street Journal, and was formerly the chief spokesperson for the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq. In light of her husband’s business activities, Brown is a walking financial and political conflict of interest.

Brown could get away with these conflicts at FOX News or CNBC, but she is a bad fit for a network that is marketing itself as the most “objective.” (Brown’s most recent quarter had its lowest ratings ever).

Anderson Cooper did a great job covering Hurricane Katrina, but takes an oddly dispassionate approach to news. When a major political event is unfolding, are you eager to find out how Anderson Cooper is covering it? Does anyone rush to their television to get Cooper’s take on the latest breaking story?

The fact is that fewer and fewer people care what Cooper feels about any subject, which is why his audience is plummeting.

Wolf Blitzer is handed news to read and then offers little in the way of new insights. Neither he nor his sidekick, Jack Cafferty, will generate viewers in that critical 25-to-54 demographic.


Since FOX is the network for the Republican Party, its broadcasters do not impact its news ratings. But the reason MSNBC is outdoing CNN is not simply because progressives prefer its more liberal slant on the news.

Keith Olberman and Rachel Maddow are vastly more interesting and more informed news hosts than are the CNN trio discussed above. Ed Schultz expresses a passion for issues not found on CNN, and Chuck Todd is far more engaging than his CNN counterpart, John King.

The only MSNBC prime-time figure that seems more like a CNN host is Chris Matthews, whose audience has not spiked like Olberman and Maddow. Not coincidentally, Matthews is alone among the MSNBC crew in using long discredited pundits like the racist and anti-Semitic Pat Buchanan.

CNN needs a lineup change, as boring people drive away viewers regardless of their politics.

Randy Shaw is the author of Beyond the Fields: Cesar Chavez, the UFW and the Struggle for Justice in the 21st Century.

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